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Suit Filed Against Township Over Open Space Spending

The complaint, filed by attorney Jeffrey Baron in Superior Court, seeks to halt Moorestown's use of the Open Space Trust Fund for field improvements.

In the end, two words may decide the township’s fate.

Attorney Jeffrey Baron, representing STEM (Save the Environment of Moorestown), filed a complaint in Superior Court Tuesday seeking to block the township’s use of the Open Space, Recreation, Farmland and Historic Preservation Trust Fund for athletic field improvements and asking for an interpretation of the township’s Open Space ordinance.

Baron’s action followed a lengthy, occasionally testy council meeting Monday during which he told township council their use of the Trust Fund was “unlawful.” In spite of that, at .

Baron also filed for an injunction against the township to keep it from spending money from the fund before a judgment is rendered.

One of the key elements of Baron’s argument against the township is the language in the interpretative statement for the 2007 referendum to approve the Open Space ordinance, which explains that the fund will be used “exclusively for the acquisition of lands for recreation and conservation purposes; development and maintenance of such lands …” (The full statement, as well as the ordinance itself, are attached as a PDF to this story.)

Because of the use of the words “such lands”—which are not contained in the state statute Moorestown’s ordinance is based on—the township is restricted to using the funds solely for the acquisition of land and the upkeep of that same land, according to Baron’s interpretation.

Meaning: Since Wesley Bishop wasn’t purchased with the Trust Fund, spending money from it to improve the field is impermissible.

Baron believes the state statute is restrictive enough as it is, but said the specific wording of the township’s interpretative statement makes his case even stronger.

Township attorney Thomas Coleman’s interpretation differs, of course, and it’s that interpretation Mayor John Button, Deputy Mayor Greg Gallo and Councilman Mike Testa followed when they voted “yes” Monday.

“We researched this extensively, and I feel we’re on solid ground going forward,” Button said. “I’ve been wrong before, but I think we’re on solid ground.”

He added, “I’m not afraid to make a decision that’s going to upset some people. I’m going to do what’s right for the town.”

Though the vast majority of public comment Monday was in opposition to the use of the Trust Fund, Button said he’d had numerous “sidewalk conversations” with people around town and felt there was plenty of support for his and his fellow councilmen’s position.

“It’s no small thing that ,” he said. “They voted (in favor of the project) with their pledge of dollars.”

A handful of residents spoke up in support of using the fund for recreation, including one man who said, “As I read (the Open Space ordinance), it does authorize this. Please council, don’t be buffaloed by a lawyer (Baron) coming in here and throwing his weight around.”

Since the proposed improvements at Wesley Bishop include the installation of a turf field, Baron also contends in his complaint that Councilman Testa’s status as a managing partner at represents a conflict of interest.

“The improved recreational facilities will attract and enable larger lacrosse tournaments, for which RuffLax has solicited for business on previous occasions,” the complaint reads, continuing, “and (Testa’s) children will have a better playing experience.”

The township Ethics Board ruled unanimously last June that as it pertained to the K.I.D.S. Initiative.

Testa could not be reached for comment.

Several people—including Baron and council members Stacey Jordan and Chris Chiacchio, who voted against dipping into the Trust Fund—questioned the timing and urgency of the project, especially .

Button explained the project had been in the works for three years, and delayed multiple times .

“We’ve held these contractors at bay over and over and over again,” he said. “We’ve got kids that are getting hurt. We’ve got people who want to use the fields from out of town. It’s a revenue generator for this town … I’m not willing to wait. This needs to be done.”

Of paramount concern to those opposing the use of the Trust Fund for improvement of the fields is that it will deplete the fund, hindering the township’s ability to acquire new open space.

Projections prepared by financial officer Tom Merchel show the balance of the fund remaining in the $400,000-600,000 range for the next 10 years, then dropping to roughly $200,000-300,000 in 2024. Merchel’s projections include expenditures for Wesley Bishop South—which was tabled at Monday’s meeting—but do not include contributions from the sports clubs or matching funds from the state.

Though Button believes the fund will remain healthy enough for the township to continue acquiring open space, he said using the Trust Fund was a last resort. Button, Gallo and Testa had advocated bonding to fund the field improvements, but could never reach a consensus with either Jordan or Chiacchio, who resisted because they felt it was an unnecessary expenditure.

“I didn’t think it was the right priority at the right time to bond for it,” Jordan said Monday. “We have a town hall that burned down, and that’s what my priority was.”

Should the judge rule in favor of Baron’s strict interpretation of the township ordinance, it would not only put the kibosh on the use of the Trust Fund for Wesley Bishop—it would also, presumably, prohibit the township from using the fund for other projects more acceptable to the pro-open space crowd, such as maintenance of , for example. The park wasn’t purchased with money from the fund, but the township uses it to mow the grass and repair the dam.

“I’m concerned if the judge did rule in the most literal sense, that’s going to be more narrow than we’d like,” said Mark Hines, co-founder of and .

“If you could only use this land for acquisition and development of open space, it would result in a tax increase,” said Button.

Baron said a hearing will be held at 10 a.m. next Friday, Aug. 3, before Judge Ronald Bookbinder. The judge is expected to rule on the injunction, but Baron said the possibility exists that Bookbinder could rule on the complaint as well.

“If he felt comfortable he had everything he needed, he could make a ruling,” said Baron.

The hearing will likely be open to the public, according to Baron.

To read the full complaint filed by Baron, check the PDF attached to this story.

Also attached to this article is a statement from the township Open Space Advisory Committee.

Townie July 26, 2012 at 10:55 AM
The Button comment at the end (tax increase) is the problem with his being mayor. Running a town is a series of interrelated decisions, not isolated events. Suggesting the OS ruling = a tax increase shows he's either playing on tax fears or incapable of understanding how to balance priorities within the fiscal constraints present. Costs go up. Anyone running on not raising taxes is sure to be revealed in a year or two. You can't stop spending money on infrastructure, staff, etc, and that gets more expensive. What you don't need to do is pay consultants to tell you what to do...and then have no plan on how to use that information. all expenses need to support the deliverable at the end. Motion is not progress. I think most people are ok with reasonable tax increases if they felt the money was being managed well by those empowered to protect and dispense them.
Centerplate July 26, 2012 at 11:17 AM
John Button made a comment here that needs to be elaborated on if there is a debate. 'I've been wrong before'? On what, Mayor? I mean, I can think of a few things immediately but I've never heard this man admit fault on ANYTHING in 4 years. Admitting he's been wrong could be a breakthrough for him!
HomeBrew July 26, 2012 at 12:42 PM
Mayor Button's comments are riddled with unsubstantiated claims: "Half this project is covered by contributions and sponsorships." Three years in the making and still no hard numbers on club contributions and sponsorships. Insult to injury: Clubs who've been screaming about poor field conditions will keep 25 percent of sponsorship revenue. "We've held these contractors at bay over and over and over again." We were told that the winning bidder on WBNorth syn-turf was too busy to start the work. "We've got kids getting hurt." Kids get hurt on syn-turf, too. "We've got people who want to use the fields from out of town ..." Who? Better question: Who cares? Let their towns spend a million bucks for a carpeted playground so they won't get their shoes muddy. "It's a revenue generator for this town." How much revenue? Where are the numbers? Three years and not a shred of detail on this claim. How much revenue is generated by the existing $1M WBNorth syn-turf field? (Moorestown clubs do not pay user fees.) How much revenue does a lacrosse tournament generate? Will tournament revenue go to the township, or will the clubs keep it? Mayor Button: Spare us the hot air. It's hot enough already.
BJs July 26, 2012 at 01:57 PM
We are going to need a debate to sort all of this out.
Patricia White July 26, 2012 at 01:59 PM
Field maintenance and improvements belong in the township budget under the categories of maintenance and capital improvements. To say you are holding the line on taxes by raiding another fund inappropriately is a fraud. How does council explain their plan to bond the township's share of the Browning-Hess Farm (which will raise taxes) because they will have depleted the Open Space fund where the monies for this are accounted for? And, if they bond for the farm, we lose matching funds from the county and state that are earmarked for Open Space purchases. GBT are focused on the short-term fix, with no eye to the overall picture. That these three have empowered themselves to determine the fate of a township of 20,000 citizens is shocking arrogance.
Ed Nice July 26, 2012 at 02:30 PM
Pat since all 5 members have used the OS funds for maintenance and it sounds like you dont like it, what is your plan to remove it from the budget? Have you spoke up the past few years against it. Even Jordan says its ok are you mad at her. Correction on the bonding. If the town bonds and pays for the costs out of OS, it doesnt raise taxes anymore than the bonding of Benner or Swedes did when those deals were done or even the gas station on Main. It is also not true that we lose matching funds just ask Tom Ford and he will correct you. Facts matter people. Get some before making up stuff. Rob Scott can sure do the research if he wants the people to have the truth. It sounds like you are against tax increases does that apply to the new town hall and library too when people are hurting and dont need more burden.
Talk of the town July 26, 2012 at 02:57 PM
The town council debate appears a no go, since earlier comments by the independents. So guess what I guess no debates?
Chris Welch July 26, 2012 at 04:30 PM
Townie - how is that (his tax comment) a problem ? What he said is true. Money from that fund is currently being used for things that would no longer be allowed should the judge rule in favor of the Open Space group. Mark Hines knows this, hence his comment: “I’m concerned if the judge did rule in the most literal sense, that’s going to be more narrow than we’d like,” said Mark Hines, . Talk about cutting of your nose to spite your face. You'd have to either raise taxes, or cut services from someplace else.
Ed Nice July 26, 2012 at 04:39 PM
Thanks for joining in Chris. Lots of lies being told here. According to Pat White the use of OS for maintenance should come out of the budget and that would mean that amount of money would need to be collected via higher taxes which is another burden. Meanwhile the OS fund at $ 2 million can continue to grow in case something special comes along that meets STEM's liking but no one else can have any of the funds because as DHrep said Monday night "it's their money". Remember last year Hines and MSOS wanted a referendum to redefine the word recreation to meet their one sided goals and screw the rest of the taxpayers who pay the tax too. Here is the other papers story for all to read. http://sj.sunne.ws/files/2011/08/Moorestown_072711.pdf
Townie July 26, 2012 at 05:59 PM
Chris...you answered your own question. The individual act of not using OS funds for fields, dams, etc. doesn't automatically increase taxes. You have debt service coming of the books in the next few years. Those (unused) payments might pay for new lights, or dam repairs. It's a balancing act, and you have to manage everything to get the best result....not isolate every conversation into a win or a loss.
Tom July 26, 2012 at 06:16 PM
You lost me. Are you saying all of the projects being bandied about can wait until the debt service drops and that the open space fund isn't needed?
Chris Welch July 26, 2012 at 07:03 PM
Townie - I'm not talking about projects that we might want to do. According to the article money from the open space fund is used yearly for regular maintenance and upkeep of parks. "The park wasn’t purchased with money from the fund, but the township uses it to mow the grass" How much money from the fund is used annually for regular upkeep of parks ? How do we pay for that now if the judge rules in favor of the Open space group?
Ed Nice July 26, 2012 at 07:23 PM
Chris the number I heard and Merchel showed Monday night was around $200-250k a year. The bigger issue is what happens if they were to win to Burlington County. Remember we pay 4 cents to the county OS fund ($1.8 million a year) which is the SAME AS OURS! If we can't use the fund to develop recreation, how can the county hand out $5 million a year for it. For sure the county didn't acquire any of the lands they are giving cash to. We may have to give back the money from Fullerton Park we know the county doesn't own it. MYBFs turf project (that's right they are installing turf....what no lawsuits?) might get shot down too now thanks to STEM and MSOS. http://www.co.burlington.nj.us/Upload/Resource_Conservation/Images/pr-rec-grants-5-25-11.pdf
Turf toe July 26, 2012 at 07:34 PM
Ed just go away and leave our fund alone. We never intended to build parks. Get your money from the elite sports clubs. Mark Hines you have my vote!
Ouches July 26, 2012 at 08:02 PM
Hey turf toe, like it, we know you buddy, and we know you aren't for the dems and neither are we. Come on! So what's that rumor again that the current 9 candidates won't be the same as people in October? Who is dropping out? We need to know your sources?
Ed Nice July 26, 2012 at 08:13 PM
Thank you Turf for showing your ignorance by saying your fund! Sorry it's our fund .... the towns fund that we all pay into. Stop your lies and stop your crying!
Roger July 26, 2012 at 11:47 PM
It seems that a great deal of the discussion has turned to threats about what will happen to taxes if we can't use open space money for park maintenace, Strawbridge Lake dams, Perkins Center, Swedes Run and on and on. Maintenance needs to be in the township budget, capital expenditures need to be planned for, and planning is not waiting and seeing if the slush fund has enough money. They need to be discussed at budget time and allocated as appropriate. It makes no sense to brag that we "held the line and there is no tax increase" when in reality we really didn't "hold the line" but we just seem to have a "small" slush fund we can dip into. It is shennanigans like this that causes our elected officials to lose our respect and trust. As a first step in regaining this trust, these slush funds need to be locked down and the elected officials need to show leadership and address budget concerns head on, not through smoke and mirrors.
Ed Nice July 27, 2012 at 12:17 AM
Rodger how is it a slush fund when it is being used for it's designated and allowed uses. That is called good management.
Roger July 27, 2012 at 12:59 AM
Unfortunately the definition of "designated and allowed uses" seems to be open to interpretation. I, and it "appears" a majority of Moorestown residents, don't necessarily agree with your interpretation.
Herbert July 27, 2012 at 03:44 AM
Moorestown can't afford Mayor BUTTON. Don't vote for John Button in November. We can't afford John. Don't vote for him.
Chet July 27, 2012 at 03:54 AM
What would Barry Hussein have to say about this type of budgeting? Certainly $1.3 trillion borrowed a year is no way to run the country would you not agree? Don't forget it was the Democrats in 2008 who left a $4 million budget hole on their way out of office when they believed that the real estate market would never downturn over the objections of Mr. Merchel who warned them about the appeals which fell on deaf ears. We are still paying for their ignorance
Ed Nice July 27, 2012 at 04:27 AM
How do you think that 50 OS'er constitutes as the majority of Moorestown...LOL There are so many young families in this town with young kids that play sports that it's not even a contest. You all can try and keep lying to yourself but it just isn't true. I will never say that there isn't a need for OS or that it isn't a good thing. My issue is the selfish "my money attitude" that you all are having. 3 on council tried to do a good thing while trying to keeping control of taxes. This is something that is happening all over the state with the same fund so why not here? So here we are...... MSOS/STEM didn't want to listen that if they asked for the project to be bonded and got behind it as a positive thing we wouldn't be were we are paying for it all out of the trust. If they had, it was shown the trust would still been healthy with plenty of money. The clam that there needs to be money in the trust to be able to get matching funds is absolutely not true. I have that information and will be posting it shortly just to put that one to bed. To be truthful it is us that matches the funds of the county because it is them that makes the purchase and we tag along for a small percentage. As for the state we are already owed a lot of money that we may never get. There are no matching funds left from the state to get and the money still is not required to be in the bank to get them. This is all a scam by MSOS/STEM as they feel they are losing control of what they considered their money!
Roger July 27, 2012 at 10:07 AM
Ed, If it is only "50 OS'er"s why are all the candidates running from this issue? Certainly politicians would jump on the bandwagon for all these miscellaneous uses of Open Space funds if they felt that was the wishes of the majority of Moorestown. If you truly believe that the majority of Moorestown residents is in favor of this you are deluding yourself.
HomeBrew July 27, 2012 at 12:30 PM
Syn-turf apologists like to say that if only we'd bonded for the second $1M+ syn-turf field at WBNorth, then we wouldn't have to loot the OS fund. That's like saying, If only the victim had agreed to be robbed at knifepoint, then I wouldn't have had to use a gun.
Ed Nice July 27, 2012 at 01:20 PM
Not a very good analogy there HomeBrew. But here are some facts. We bonded and built the existing turf field at WB under Howard Miller and the Repubs. All members of this council including J/C voted to bond the TURF for MYBF. Jordan says she supports the turf at WBN and if she won't use OS money that means bonding. Pete Palko said he supports the fields and is running to fix them. How if not by bonding? Is there some other magic option you know about. You can keep spinning your tales but the facts are against you. Answer me this will J/C bond the $15 million for town hall that we cannot afford? How's that gonna look to those burdened taxpayers? Here is what she said on April 17, 2012 Councilwoman Stacey Jordan said it was foolish to consider any of these projects at the moment when the township didn’t know how it would pay for them. Even though the township’s debt service is decreasing in 2014 and 2019, Jordan said it wasn’t a smart idea to put more of a tax burden on Moorestown residents. “I’m confused by saying lets just bond this and let future councils worry about paying for it,” she said. “It’s irresponsible and I don’t agree with it.”
The Situation July 27, 2012 at 03:46 PM
I can't wait to do donuts with my quad on the new plastic! weeeee!
Observer July 28, 2012 at 05:06 PM
The mayor should have to write "Everyone has a view but the law is paramount over our personal views" 100 times in his how-to-be-a-mayor notebook.

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